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Environmental Disaster of Unprecedented Proportions from Millions of Abandoned Gas and Oil Wells

  • Published: 2011-02-10 : Author:
  • Synopsis: Failed capping technology and oversight make millions of abandoned oil and gas wells worldwide ecological disasters waiting to happen.

Failed capping technology and lax oversight make 20-30 million abandoned oil and gas wells worldwide ecological landmines. The triggers include accidents, earthquakes, erosion, re-pressurization (spontaneous or fracking induced) and, simply, time.

A three-month investigation has revealed a developing environmental catastrophe that almost no one is paying attention to and which gravely threatens ecosystems worldwide.

There are at minimum 2.5 million abandoned oil and gas wells, none permanently capped, littering the US, and an estimated 20-30 million globally. There is no known technology for securely sealing these tens of millions of abandoned wells. Many--likely hundreds of thousands--are already hemorrhaging oil, brine and greenhouse gases into the environment. Habitats are being fundamentally altered. Aquifers are being destroyed. Some of these abandoned wells are explosive, capable of building-leveling, toxin-spreading detonations. And thanks to primitive capping technologies, virtually all are leaking now or will be.

Largely ignored by both industry and governments, this problem has been growing for 150 years since the first oil wells were drilled. Each abandoned well is an ecological landmine waiting to be set off. The triggers include accidents, earthquakes, natural erosion, re-pressurization (either spontaneous or precipitated by fracking) and, simply, time.

Oil industry experts quoted in the piece include:

Ian McDonnell, a Florida State University hydrologist who studies natural oil seeps

Bob Cavnar, Luca Technologies CEO and 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry

Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and marine conservation specialist

Norman Guinasso, Deputy Director of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M

Greg Rosenstein, vice-president of New Orleans-based Superior Energy Service, who plugs between 500 to 600 offshore wells a year

Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and author of Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction

Bill Pine, Chief of the Subsurface Activity Section of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (which is charged with plugging abandoned oil wells)

Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (the agency charged with taking care of abandoned undersea wells)

Romana Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission of Texas, which has regulated the oil industry in Texas since 1901 (when pipelines were considered another form of interstate transportation, like railroads)

Please read this illuminating investigative report at

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About Steven Kotler: Steven Kotler is an award-winning journalist and the author of The Angle Quickest for Flight, West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief and A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life. His non-fiction appears in more than 50 publications, including the New York Times Magazine, LA Times, Wired, Popular Science, GQ, Outside and National Geographic. He writes The Playing Field, a blog about the science of sport, for Psychology Today and is an investigative reporter for ecology site,

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